University rankings 2021

There are now as many as twenty different sources of university ranking information available – no doubt using different methodologies and weightings.  Whilst we have not reviewed all twenty, the question you may well be pondering is: “which are the most reliable rankings to review”?  We will share comparisons between what, in our view, are the three most established and well-known university ranking surveys:

  1. The QS World University Rankings (QS stands for Quacquarelli Symonds)
  2. The Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings
  3. The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU)

QS evaluate 5 500 Institutions, though they rank 1000 Institutions, THE have grown from ranking 400 to 1 500 Universities and ARWU have increased their sample from 1 200 to 1 800 – though they only publish the top 1000.

The table, below, provides you with a comprehensive overview of the three surveys, what they measure, how weightings are allocated, and the methodology applied in arriving at a ranking.

 QS World University RankingsTimes Higher Education World University RankingsShanghai: Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU)
Who conducts this research?QS is a medium sized company with offices around the world and 2021 is the 17th year in which QS rankings have been published.Founded in 2004, the THE rankings provide a definitive list of the world’s best Universities.  Rankings can be sorted by country and by subject and are widely used as a study advice resource by students.Since 2009 the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) has been published and copyrighted by Shanghai Ranking Consultancy – a fully independent organization on higher education intelligence.
What is measured?This research is based on the four key areas of research, teaching, employability and the international outlook of Universities.The THE World University rankings makes use of 13 carefully calibrated performance indicators to rank Universities.Universities are ranked by several indicators of academic or research performance, the quality of education and the quality of the Universities’ faculties.
Measurement specifics and weightingsThere are a total of 6 measures, each with different weightings: Academic Reputation (40%) Employer Reputation (10%.Faculty/Student Ratio (20%)Citations per Faculty (20%)International Faculty Ratio (5%)International Student Ratio (5%)The broad measures used by this survey, together with their respective weightings are as follows: Teaching: Learning Environment (30%)Citations: research influence (30%)Research: volume, income and reputation (30%)International outlook: staff, students and research (7.5%)Industry income: Knowledge transfer (2.5%)The following criteria are used: Quality of Education: Alumni of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals (10%)The Quality of Faculty: Staff of an institution winning Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals (20%) as well as highly cited researchers in 21 broad subject categories (20%)Research Output – papers indexed in Nature and Science (20%) as well as papers indexed in Science and Social Science Citation Indexes (20%).Per Capita Performance: per capita academic performance of an institution (10%)
How is information gathered?A combination of qualitative and quantitative research.   Academic reputation is assessed via a global survey of academics who are asked to identify the institutions at which they believe the best work is taking place in their field of expertise.  Input was received from 102 662 academics for the most recent survey.  Employers are asked to identify which universities’ they perceive to produce the best graduates, with feedback received from 51 649 employers.  The remaining statistical information (e.g. the number of staff employed versus the relative number of students) is obtained directly from the Universities.  QS makes use of a database of research and citations called Scopus.Information is submitted by Universities and they provide a sign-off on data provided for the rankings.  Use is also made of various websites to source information about number of Citations, mention in research journals etc.   The THE data team draw on a comprehensive and growing database containing hundreds of thousands of data points on more than 1,500 leading global research universities and employ a global Academic Reputation Survey of more than 20,000 leading scholars, who provide expert views on the world’s leading universities. In addition, they analyse 60 million citations to more than 12.4 million academic journal articles (from Elsevier’s Scopus database) published over a five-year period between 2012 and 2016.   A simple explanation of the methodology used is available on this YouTube clip: is sourced from various websites such as the Nobel Laureates, Fields Medals and Citation indexes.  Data is also obtained from national agencies such as the National Ministry of Education, National Bureau of Statistics, NACE etc.
How many Universities are included in the most recent survey?1000 Universities globally1 500 Universities globallyMore than 1 800 Universities are ranked, though only the best 1000 are published on the web.

The important question, of course, is how our South African Universities fare in each of the above-mentioned studies.  I have included, in the table below a comparison between our rankings in 2015 and the most recent rankings available for each survey.

InstitutionGlobal Ranking, QS World University Rankings www.topuniversities.comGlobal ranking, THE World University Rankings Ranking, Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU)  
*Note: ranked in order according to the QS 2019 ranking20212015202120152020 (latest available)2015
University of Cape Town220141155124201-300201-300
University of the Witwatersrand403318201-250274201-300201-300
Stellenbosch University456390251-300276-300401-500401-500
University of Johannesburg439601-650601-800No ranking601-700No ranking
University of Pretoria561-570471-480601-800No ranking401-500No ranking
University of KwaZulu Natal801-1000501-650351-400No ranking501-600401-500
Rhodes University801-1000601-650No rankingNo ranking901-1000No ranking
University of the Western Cape1000+No ranking601-800No rankingNo rankingNo ranking
North West University1000+No ranking501-600No ranking601-700No ranking
UNISANo rankingNo ranking1001+No ranking801-900No ranking

The sad reality is that between 2015 and 2020/21 almost all our Universities have dropped down the list in each of the respective surveys.  No doubt contributing factors include the increased disruption on many of our campuses around #feesmustfall as well as the uncertain political climate that prevails – Covid has not helped, either!  As each of the surveys have expanded their research, however, some Institutions that were not ranked in 2015 have been added to the lists – and that must be a good sign for us!  It is worthy to note that UJ’s QS ranking has increased from the 600’s to 439 in 2021!

If you are not already familiar with University rankings and are reading about them for the first time, there are some important pointers to consider.  These are as follows:

  • When making comparisons of this nature it is important to understand what is being measured, what the sample size is and whether, when comparing data, we are comparing like with like.
  • Our analysis of the three different surveys reveals that different methodologies and weightings are used across the three surveys.  All are valid and though there are some differences between the order in which our Institutions are ranked they are minor.
  • All three surveys can be “sliced and diced” by Faculty as well as by subject (the QS survey tells us more about our Universities by Faculty/Subject than the other two surveys do).  If, for example you look at the QS rankings for Engineering and Technology then the University of Pretoria ranks ahead of Stellenbosch University.  Similarly, the University of KwaZulu Natal’s ranking for Life Sciences and Medicine is 400 – compared to an overall ranking of 801-1000.
  • It is therefore important to know how to use this information and comparisons by subject and faculty will be important for employers who will be making strategic decisions about which institutions to target for graduate recruitment.
  • Our 2020 SAGEA Employer Benchmarking study revealed that nearly a fifth of organisations were targeting up to four universities with the median number of universities targeted being five.
  • Our research also tells us that five universities had more than half of employers attending their university-led career fairs in 2019 – the University of Cape Town, the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Pretoria, the University of Johannesburg and Stellenbosch University – and this correlates strongly with the top-ranked Universities according to the QS rankings.
  • Our 2020 SAGEA Candidate Insights research indicates that 65% of students will take a University’s reputation into account when deciding where to study, with 60% evaluating the reputation of the course they are thinking of taking.

In conclusion, the University rankings are a valuable source of information for both students and employers and each one of the ranking surveys has its place and is of value.  The QS survey seems to be the most widely used and their methodology does include qualitative input from academics and employers.

And finally, the most important thing to take note of is this: There are approximately 20 000 Universities in the world and, according to the QS rankings UCT, Wits, UJ and Stellenbosch rank in the top 500 Universities in the world with a further five Universities (University of Pretoria, UKZN, Rhodes, UWC and NWU) ranking in the top 1000 Universities in the world!

PS, for more information about the QS subject rankings for Science, Technology and Maths, read this article:

And for more information about subject rankings in Law and Engineering, read this one: